SHELBY CO., Tenn. — Cell phones contain private information and most of us keep it locked with a password.
FOX13 investigates has learned the Memphis Police Department just bought new technology to hack into suspect's cell phones.
The device is so secret neither the company that makes it nor the MPD will discuss it. Both believe it can help solves crimes in which a cell phone contains vital evidence.
Take for example a murder on Gloucester Street in 2017. The crime might have gone unsolved had detectives not found the victims cell phone in the car.
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His wife unlocked the device for them. The text messages from the phone helped police arrest Jaylon Jackson. He pled guilty to manslaughter.
Retired FBI Agent CM Sturgis insists a cell phone can be as valuable as a finger print.
"If that guy has been texting to the hitman, or to the main drug dealer so to speak or supplier, you don’t want to lose that evidence. It is crucial," said Sturgis.
What happens if the cell phone is locked? The suspect doesn't want to provide the password?
The device is useless.
FOX13 discovered MPD wants technology to unlock cell phones. According to a February 21, 2019 memo to Deputy Chief Mike Shearin: "Homicide bureau has 25 to 30 cases that involve locked phones.”
“The homicide unit obtains one or two locked phones a week that are involved in ongoing investigations," the memo said.
Sturgis told FOX13 that is a problem for law enforcement.
“How do you download that data if it is password-protected? That is a crucial stumbling block for investigators," Sturgis said.
FOX13 discovered through an open records request Memphis Police spent $15,000 from a U.S. Department of Justice grant to buy a device from a company called GrayShift.
The contract was dated April 25, 2019.
"The device is able to crack the phone, get the data off of the phone. Even if it is encrypted and is locked down with a passcode," which is how Thomas Reed of Malwarebytes.com describes the services MPD got with the contract.
Reed is a tech expert and the only person to obtain a picture of the device GrayShift manufactures called “GrayKey.”
He believes GrayKey takes advantage of vulnerabilities with a cell phone, iPhone specifically, to gain access to all the data, text messages, phone logs and even pictures.
FOX13 asked if it is legal what GrayKey does.
“Technically, there is nothing illegal about it. Otherwise, they would not be able to sell it in the United States," Reed said. “There is probably something on every person’s phone that would be incriminating for something."
Neither the company nor MPD responded to three email requests from FOX13 for an interview about the device and its use.
Multiple police sources have told FOX13 before the device can be used a judge must sign a search warrant for detectives to hook the phone up to the device. Noted defense attorney Michael R. Working told FOX13 he worries about the potential for abuse.
“It is about opening up Pandora's Box. Once you open Pandora's Box, law enforcement knows all sorts of things about you and your family and friends just by being in your phone," said Working.
Reed fears an even bigger problem.
“It is entirely possible that the vulnerabilities they are using could also be in the hands of criminals or oppressive governments or other organizations that you wouldn't want to have access to user data,” said Reed.
FOX13 showed Sturgis the city contract. Sturgis believes both MPD and the company have safeguards written in the agreement to protect the public.
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